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Reflections on the 9th Internet Governance Forum

I recently returned from Istanbul, Turkey where I attended the 9th annual Internet Governance Forum. This was my third IGF in a row, and my second with Mozilla. Like the others I’ve attended, it was a vibrant event, with over 3000 registrants from very different regions and interests culminating in an energizing, inspiring forum.

This year’s event reinforced my positive position on the IGF. It has a crucial role to play at the core of the Internet governance ecosystem, and it continues to fulfill that role far, far better than any other event. The IGF brings people from all walks of life into the same venue and it gets them to interact with each other and talk about difficult issues, face to face and in real time. This year, even remote participation worked fairly smoothly, as I attended a couple sessions that included speakers on video-conference connections.

Some viewed Turkey as an odd choice for a host, given the country’s history of social media blocking and other interference with free expression and activity online (including a law adopted just after the conclusion of IGF to make it even easier to block Web pages). The sentiment was strong enough to inspire the creation of a competing “Internet Ungovernance Forum” focused on promoting an open, secure, and free-as-in-speech Internet. Despite the undercurrents, both forums were well attended, and featured a broad range of interesting and expert speakers (and even some who were both!).

There is always a spotlight on IGF in the international Internet policy world. This year’s comes from NETmundial in Brazil, and, looking ahead a bit, this October’s ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in Korea, a once-every-four-years convening for high-level intergovernmental activity at the core of the ITU’s mission.

So, what did that spotlight illuminate? As always, there were many broad-ranging discussions on Internet policy issues, and no structural mechanisms to move from policy development to any formalized decision-making. (But for the IGF, this is a feature, not a bug.)

Topically, if last year was the Snowden/surveillance IGF, this year was the net neutrality IGF, with at least three feeder sessions and a three-hour “main session” focused on the topic. I spoke at two of the net neutrality sessions, and attended the others. One of my sessions examined “network enhancement” and its relationship to net neutrality – a timely topic here in the United States, where opponents of strong net neutrality rules often indicate that excessive regulation will discourage investment in infrastructure. The other was the annual working session of the Dynamic Coalition on Network Neutrality, which was praised by conference organizers as one of the most effective examples of the ad-hoc IGF working coalitions. I also contributed a paper to the Coalition’s second annual report, drawing from Mozilla’s petition to the FCC and our July comments.

Surveillance had its moments in the spotlight as well, though it was less emphasized than last year. I spoke on two surveillance-related panels. A session organized by CIGI went straight to one of our core policy themes, trust, and how revelations of expansive surveillance have harmed trust, and what we can do to restore it. A separate session, co-organized by the Internet Society and CDT, focused on responses to surveillance, such as proposals to build additional IXPs and undersea cables, and new laws to mandate localization of data within a country. The group collectively opposed localization mandates as both unhelpful for protecting Internet users from surveillance and potentially disastrous to the global free and open Internet.

The IGF isn’t perfect. But it deserves the role it has as the first stop for collaborative discussion of issues related to governance “on” the Internet. Its mandate from the UN runs for one more year, through the 10th IGF in 2015, and then unless renewed the events will stop. But with massive support from many stakeholder groups in many regions of the world – and a host country for 2016 already lined up, by some accounts – I think the IGF will, and should, continue for many years to come.